Dungeons, Dragons and Lofty Expectations

For the perfectionist, the one who strives for every game to live at the table the way it does in the mind, this is problematic.

I am new to the art of being dungeon master. I am also something of a perfectionist. As combinations go, this is a particularly unhappy marriage.

Bubbling away beneath every game I play is a desire for it to be two things…well, primarily, two things, amid an absolute wealth of other little details. Those things are, in no particular order, fun, and fluid. I want the game to be a pleasant experience for all involved win or lose, I want the more experienced players to remember why gaming at the table is so goddamned brilliant, and I want the newcomers to not feel the urge to turn their back on this world after one shot. And, in addition I want play to be free from continual dips into the rulebook to see how the action should proceed, a situation that always brings a grinding halt to said proceedings, and often, impacts significantly upon the fun element.

For the perfectionist in me this is sometimes a painful experience. Every foray into the text to find a particular rule has an innate ability to slow down time, as panicked, I search for the few sentences that will allow play to commence, under increasingly frustrated glares from the players around me. To be fair, the glares are largely in my imagination, fuelled by this almost unattainable level of prefect gameplay I crave so desperately.

As we’ve grown as a family that plays board games on a regular basis, the games we play have gradually become far more free flowing affairs. Many intricate rules and order of events are now second nature, and my inner perfect play demons have been somewhat satiated. However, this was far from the case when we gathered recently to embark upon the Dungeons and Dragons tale, The Mines of Phandelver.

Everything was in place. Four keen players, an equally keen, if slightly flustered DM, snacks aplenty, and some fresh dice sets of varying colours. Night one went quite well. I opened up the story with the players meeting in a local pub where they would get the chance to introduce themselves, question others, and begin putting some flesh upon the bones of the character sheets. Following a mildly awkward, and quiet, first meeting between the players things commenced to good old fashioned adventuring where Goblins were slain and treasure plundered. However, one very noticeable component of play that was absent for much of the game was simple communication between players. I understood why. Initially, going into character and conversing in such a way is a pretty strange place to be for new D&D players. What this meant for the game was that, between the moments of action, in the little quiet spaces ripe for plotting and chatter, things became a little disjointed.

I know that the more we play together, the more natural it will be for these moments to become rich with storytelling and character interaction, it’s only a matter of time, however, for my inner demons it played havoc with the recent tranquillity.

I ended the game slightly earlier on the second night than I had originally planned. This was largely because my pre-planning had been minimal and I had begun to flounder under the rules of adventurer/Goblin engagement, and the details of the soon to be explored cavern that had been discovered. I noticed that my own inexperience and lack of knowledge had seen the game stutter rather than glide, and this in turn had impeded the players becoming comfortable with roleplay as a core gaming mechanic.

It was however, a good night for learning lessons.

First, I understood that as DM it is critical to enter the fray fully armed with enough information that the moments of doubt are diluted. And secondly, and most importantly, it’s important to reign in the expectations.

As I’ve talked about previously, my fires for this slice of tabletop play were very much stoked by the crew at Critical Role. In fact, when I say stoked, what I mean is, this merry band of players took a flamethrower to said fires and lit a bloody inferno! But, watching such a talented bunch play the game, where they wear the robes of roleplay as though they were born to do so, and every session manages to ride the waves of emotion that enhance gaming sessions beyond the most wild of dreams, then, finally getting your own game to the table is always going to have one hell of job reaching the heights of what is envisioned in the mind.

For the perfectionist, the one who strives for every game to live at the table the way it does in the mind, this is problematic. And as much as our own game might not have been on a level of the Critical Role crew, I have learnt to appreciate it for what it was. Looking back, sure there were moments of floundering DM ineptitude, and moments of player to player awkwardness, moments were things fell flat as I scurried through pages of text looking for a beacon of hope, but, there were also moments of pure magic, of pure comedy, and of pure adventure and storytelling delight. It’s this that as we go forward I will look to harness, because the utter joy of a family playing this game far surpasses any stutters along the way. Looking back now, I understand that time is the best friend of the adventurous heart, and as time goes by our own adventures at the table, with dice in hand, will evolve.

My perfectionist wanted to run before it could even crawl. Now, I have reined it in, or vowed to at least. We will venture again into the lands of D&D in the next few days, and this time I know we don’t have to be Critical Role to make the story come alive, we just have to be us, be patient, and be open to embracing a whole universe of fun. Sounds easy.

Oh, and I’ll probably read a bit more of the rulebook…probably.

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